Friday, March 04, 2011

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Dead Lie Still,” by William L. Stuart

(Editor’s note: This is the 114th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from Chicago part-time writer and bookseller J.F. Norris, author of the excellent, recently launched crime-fiction blog Pretty Sinister Books.)

Published in the fall of 1945, only five months after V-E Day, The Dead Lie Still is one of the most violent World War II-era crime novels directly tied to the war that I’ve encountered in my many decades of reading genre fiction. The book foreshadows that postwar paranoia that would pervade crime fiction for decades. The protagonist and a slew of supporting characters are suspicious of nearly everyone they encounter and are constantly on guard for “the enemy.” And rightly so, for nearly everyone Sam Talbot meets is looking for a fight, and carries a weapon (sometimes two or three) and is ready to use it without questions.

This is a novel imbued with the spirit of the hard-boiled private eye, the loner hero with the tenacity of a lion on the prowl, who craves justice for the wronged and the innocent bystanders who’ve lost their lives in a war that has infected everyday American life. In the first chapter, when Talbot attempts to rescue a man from the burning wreck of a gasoline truck, we realize immediately that here is a guy who will let nothing stop him--let the fire burn, let the threat of explosion loom over him, let his hands endure second-degree burns. Talbot is more like the supermen of the hero pulps than the standard noir private eye. That’s because he’s not a private eye. He’s just a regular joe who happens to have served in the U.S. Navy and is now trying to make a post-service living.

Talbot is a resolute ex-Naval intelligence officer now working as a commercial artist. In The Dead Lie Still (re-released in the 1950s as Dead Ahead), his reputation attracts the attention of FBI agent George Sanderson. Sanderson arranges for a meeting, hinting only that Talbot is perfect for the kind of help he needs. But the next day, when Talbot shows up to receive his mysterious assignment, Sanderson is nowhere to be found. Then Talbot’s apartment is broken into. Apparently, someone thinks he has something of great value. He accidentally enlists the aid of a female poet he met in the same bar where Sanderson approached him. When she volunteers to act as a snoop for him, she endangers her life and sets into motion a game of cat and mouse between Talbot and a group of sadistic, malevolent thugs who seem to double in number like the Hydra each time he eliminates one of them.

As the story progresses author Stuart reveals his patriotic fervor, his loyalty to American military forces, and his disgust over the way most people take enlisted men for granted. One of the best scenes takes place towards the end of the book, when Talbot is picked up by a cab driver named Joe, who is out to protect him from the army of bad guys. They strike up an immediate friendship and the cab driver soon reveals to Talbot why he is looking out for him:
He reached down under his seat and pulled out a slender length of steel weighted with lead at the end. “Protection. We run into some funny things at night. It’s got a little whip to it. Works to beat hell.”

Talbot took the weapon. It had a lethal feel.

“Glad I ran into you,” he said.

“So am I,” Joe said. "There’s something I don’t like about these bastards. I got two kids over. Went from Germany right over to the Pacific. I got a funny feeling these bastards ain’t on our side.”
Seemingly fueled solely by a combination of rage and alcohol, Talbot becomes a one-man army battling a host of goons, thugs, and pistol-packing mamas. He endures a burned hand, multiple beatings, several bouts of unconsciousness, and a breakfast of three brandy eggnogs. This book is a cinematic wonder with numerous action set-pieces that would make a stuntman drool in anticipation. There are fights with flying furniture, apartments turned upside down, a couple of barroom brawls, nighttime prowlings, and surveillance of the villain’s mansion guarded by lummoxes. It should come as no surprise that after Stuart’s second novel, Night Cry (1948), was turned into the 1950 film noir classic, Where the Sidewalk Ends, he took up residence in Hollywood as yet another novelist turned screenwriter. (Stuart’s screenwriting credits include episodes of the TV series 77 Sunset Strip, Bourbon Street Beat, Bonanza, and The Green Hornet.)

This book has stuck with me for a long time now. And having reread it to refresh my memory, I see it in a new light. In the light of three more senseless wars, in the shadow of terrorism, and in the presence of the wounded, limbless men and women who served their time in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Dead Lie Still is even more powerful to a 21st-century reader than it was in its original time of a still raging World War II. Sam Talbot, the superman hero willing to suffer broken bones, busted eyes, burns, and numerous bashes to his skull, is like all the war vets who surround us today--brave beyond measure but never truly appreciated for what they have sacrificed. His descent into a secret world of traitors and villains is a powerful and merciless look at war being fought on American soil, much like what Homeland Security would like us to believe is going on right now. In Talbot’s case it is very real, very dangerous, extremely sinister, and in the end a torturing and sobering nightmare that will remain with him for years to come.

The climax takes place in the creepy town of Tyron, New York, a no-man’s-land of bars and cheap hotels located a few miles from a railroad station. Talbot has tracked down a criminal mastermind who the reader can infer has something to do with military secrets and an underground network of spies. It’s all kind of hazy and it’s all tied to a Hitchcockian MacGuffin in the form of Sanderson’s notebook, with its undecipherable shorthand notes that obviously contain highly important data that should not fall into the wrong hands. A macabre scene in which Talbot confronts the villain--who we see is a helpless amputee being tended to and kept alive by machines and injections--seems more like something out of a weird menace pulp story than an intelligent yet merciless crime novel. Still, taken into context with the whole of the story preceding, I understand why Stuart went this route.

The final paragraphs--which I wish I could reproduce here, but won’t for fear of ruining William Stuart’s chilling coda--are sure to haunt any reader. They have both a poignant resonance and a lasting eerie frisson that make The Dead Lie Still a book you really ought to read. It’s never been more pertinent than it is now.

No comments: